May 1, 2010

Tired of primitive living? Why not try Civilization* ? *some restrictions apply : Permaculture Politics

From Water to Farm to You: Celebrating NRDC's 2010 Growing Green Awards

NRDCflix — April 29, 2010 — NRDC's 2010 Growing Green Awards winners were selected from a pool of 170 impressive candidates for their outstanding achievements in sustainable food and farming: Food Producer: Russ Lester, Dixon Ridge Farms Business Leader: Karl Kupers, Shepherd's Grain Thought Leader: Fred Kirschenmann, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture Water Steward: Mike Benziger, Benziger Family Winery

Apr 30, 2010

Don't Panic, Go Organic - By Anna Lappe | Foreign Policy

Be not troubled by Robert Paarlberg's scaremongering. Organic practices can feed the world -- better, in fact, than wasteful industrial farming.


In May 2004, Catherine Badgley, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan, took her students on a research trip to an organic farm near their campus. Standing on the acre-and-a-half farm, Badgley asked the farmer, Rob MacKercher, how much food he produces annually. "Twenty-seven tons," he said. Badgley did the quick math: That's enough to provide 150 families one pound of produce every single day of the year.

"If he can grow that quantity on this tiny parcel," Badgley wondered, "why can't organic agriculture feed the world?" That question was the genesis of a multi-year, multidisciplinary study to explore whether we could, indeed, feed the world with organic, sustainable methods of farming. The results? A resounding yes.

Unfortunately, you don't hear about this study, or others with similar findings, in "Attention Whole Foods Shoppers," Robert Paarlberg's defense of industrial agriculture in the new issue of Foreign Policy. Instead, organic agriculture, according to Paarlberg, is an "elite preoccupation," a "trendy cause" for "purist circles." Sure, sidling up to a Whole Foods in your Lexus SUV and spending $24.99 on artisan fromage may be the trappings of a privileged foodie, but there's an SUV-sized difference between obsessing about the texture of your goat cheese and arguing for a more sustainable food system. Despite Paarlberg's pronouncements, Badgley's research, along with much more evidence, helps us see that what's best for the planet and for people -- especially small-scale farmers who are the hungriest among us -- is a food system based on agroecological practices. What's more, Paarlberg's impressive-sounding statistics veil the true human and ecological cost we are paying with industrial agriculture.

Since most of us aren't well-versed in the minutia of this debate, we can't be blamed for falling for Paarlberg's scaremongering, which suggests that by rejecting biotech and industrial agriculture, we are keeping developing countries underdeveloped and undernourished. Paarlberg suggests that we could eliminate starvation across the continent of Africa were it not that "efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided ... advocacy against agricultural modernization."

It's a compelling argument, and one industry defenders make all the time. For who among us would want to think we're starving the poor by pushing for sustainability? (At a Biotechnology Industry Organization conference I attended in 2005, a workshop participant even suggested pro-organic advocates should be "tried for crimes against humanity.")

But the argument for industrial agriculture and biotechnology is built on a misleading depiction of what organic agriculture is, bolstered with shaky statistics, and constructed by ignoring the on-the-ground lessons of success stories across the globe.

For a start, Paarlberg doesn't get what it means to be organic. "Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals," he writes, "so their food is de facto organic." In contrast, industrial agriculture, as he sees it, is "science-intensive." But as Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, "modern organic practices are defined by much more than just the absence of synthetic chemicals"; it's knowledge-intensive farming. Organic farmers improve output, less by applying purchased products and more by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control.

Biotech and industrial agriculture would in fact more aptly be called water, chemical, and fossil-fuel-intensive farming, requiring external inputs to boost productivity. Industrial agriculture gobbles up much of the 70 percent of the planet's freshwater resources diverted to farming, for example. It relies on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizer. In fact, in 2007, we used 13 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, five times the amount used in 1960. Crop yields, by comparison, grew only half that fast. And it's hardly a harmless increase: Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest cause of global-warming gases from U.S. agriculture and a major cause of air and water pollution -- including the creation of dead zones in coastal waters that are devoid of fish. And despite the massive pesticide increase, the United States loses more crops to pests today than it did before the chemical agriculture revolution six decades ago.

The diminishing returns of industrial agriculture are one reason why organic agriculture comes out ahead in all the comprehensive comparative studies. In Badgley's study, for instance, data from hundreds of certified-organic, industrial, and low-input farms around the world revealed that introducing agroecological approaches in developing countries led to between two and four times the productivity as the previous practices. Estimating the impact on global food supply if we shifted the planet to organic production, the study authors found a yield increase for every single food category they investigated.

In one of the largest studies to analyze how agroecological practices affect productivity in the developing world, researchers at the University of Essex in England analyzed 286 projects in 57 countries. Among the 12.6 million farmers followed, who were transitioning toward sustainable agriculture, researchers found an average yield increase of 79 percent across a wide variety of crop types.

Even the United Nations backs those claims. A 2008 U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report concluded that "organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and ... is more likely to be sustainable in the long term."

In the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, several U.N. agencies and the World Bank engaged more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries over four years to produce the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The conclusion? Our "reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a lead author on the report.

Too bad we don't hear these success stories from Paarlberg. Instead he claims that without industrial food systems, "food would be not only less abundant but also less safe." To build his case, he points to improvements in food safety in the United States, such as the drop in E. coli contamination in U.S. beef. He neglects to mention that the virulent form of E. coli, a pathogen that can be fatal in humans, only emerged in the gut of cattle in the 1980s as a direct consequence of industrial livestock factories -- precisely the model he would export overseas. Meanwhile, Paarlberg conveniently ignores the diet-related illnesses spawned by industrial food in the United States, where the health-care system is now crippled with these preventable diseases. Hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes have all been linked in part to diet.

Paarlberg defends his case by pointing to a staggering death toll in Africa where, he claims, 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases compared with only 5,000 in the United States. But he's deceptively comparing apples and oranges: Those U.S. figures are only for food-borne illnesses. And the lack of an industrial food system isn't responsible for most of that high death toll in Africa. The World Health Organization attributes much of this tragic toll to unsanitary drinking water contaminated with pathogens transmitted from human excreta, causing a massive spike in cholera that year. Oh, and pesticide poisoning, too. Yes, that would be pesticides from industrial chemical farming.

Paarlberg's praise for industrial practices is similar to the biotech industry trumpeting its technology for saving us from famine, farmer bankruptcy, blindness, disease, poverty, even loss of biodiversity. Back in 1994, Dan Verakis, a spokesman for the industrial agricultural firm Monsanto, claimed that biotech crops would reduce herbicide and pesticide use, in effect reversing "the Silent Spring scenario." In 1999, Monsanto said it had developed genetically engineered rice to be a vital source of vitamin A, reducing blindness caused by its deficiency. That same year, then Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro boasted that GM technology would trigger an "80 percent reduction in insecticide use in cotton crops alone in the United States."

Few of these promises have borne fruit. Instead, commercialized biotech crops have fostered herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant pests, while reducing biodiversity. "In the past, farmers used a variety of chemical controls and manual labor, making it unlikely that any weed plant would evolve a resistance to all those different strategies simultaneously," explains gene ecology expert, Jack Heinemann, another IAASTD author. "But as we oversimplify -- as we industrialize -- we make agriculture more vulnerable to the next problem." Already, examples of herbicide resistance are popping up from canola fields in Canada to farms in Australia.

Another cause for concern is that industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops dangerously reduce biodiversity, especially on the farm. In the United States, 90 percent of soy, 70 percent of corn, and 95 percent of sugarbeets are genetically modified. Industrial farms are by their very nature monocultures, but diverse crops on a farm, even weeds, serve multiple functions: Bees feast on their nectar and pollen, birds munch on weed seeds, worms and other soil invertebrates that help control pests live among them -- the list goes on.

So are farmers in southern Africa, across India, in villages throughout the developing world really waiting for biotech and industrial agriculture to feed them, as Paarlberg suggests? "No," says Sue Edwards, a British-born botanist who works at the Institute for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "Farmers we work with don't hold much hope" for these technologies; they see hope in their fields.

Starting in 1996, Edwards and colleagues engaged smallholder farmers in drought-prone regions in Ethiopia to investigate whether resilient food systems could be fostered by tapping ecological agriculture, building farming skills, emphasizing crops indigenous to the continent that had evolved to be drought resilient. They enlisted farmers in field trials, comparing crops grown using ecological methods like composting with those raised with chemical fertilizer or without any inputs at all. (That'd be what Paarlberg calls "de facto organic.") The results are conclusive: By 2006, they were finding significantly higher yields in the ecological test sites of every single crop compared with the chemical-fertilizer plots and even more dramatic benefits compared with the no-input plots.

Among the pitfalls in Paarlberg's analysis, two stand out. First, the benefits of his approach are speculative, at best; at worst, his assertions are disengenous, based on cherry-picking evidence and misrepresenting data. We need only compare his claims with Edwards's work and similar research around the world that demonstrates that agroecological approaches can protect natural resources and increase yields. Not in five years; not in 20. But right now -- today.

Second, his approach ignores power relationships that ultimately determine who will benefit from any technology. In agroecological approaches, farmers gain knowledge, including knowledge about ways to adapt to changing climate and to share their knowledge with each other. Farmers become less dependent on distant, centralized suppliers of high-priced biotech seeds and chemical inputs and therefore less vulnerable to their notoriously unstable prices. Though perhaps harder to measure, this independence may be the most critical advantages of agroecological farming.

Take away Paarlberg-esque mythologizing -- along with the government handouts, international financial institutional backing, tax breaks, and externalized environmental and human costs that prop up industrial agriculture and biotechnology -- and industrial agriculture would go the way of the Hummer: an overhyped footnote in the history books.

Kelpie Wilson: WorldStove: Transforming Haiti and the World

Kelpie Wilson Journalist and Biochar Advocate
Posted: April 29, 2010 04:15 PM
WorldStove: Transforming Haiti and the World
WorldStove founder Nathaniel Mulcahy has just completed two months of work in Haiti, setting up a pilot project that will provide biochar-producing stoves and jobs for the Haitian people. The project was featured in an Earth Day press release from the UN Special Envoy to Haiti (former President Clinton) as an example of "building back better" by incorporating environmental sustainability in the recovery effort.

Before WorldStove, Mulcahy was an award-winning industrial designer creating consumer products for large corporations like Emerson Appliances. Eight years ago, while lying in bed recovering from a life-threatening accident, he realized that he needed to focus his energies on innovative designs to improve the quality of life for people who were less fortunate. The result was his invention of the fuel efficient, low emissions LuciaStove, named after the canine companion who saved his life.

The breakthrough that set the LuciaStove apart from similar gasifer stoves was Mulcahy's patented design which uses venturi holes to create negative pressure while a flame cap based on Fibonacci spiral geometry prevents oxygen from entering the pyrolysis chamber. The combination delivers better air control for cleaner combustion of the gases produced from the biomass it uses as fuel. It also produces biochar.

Mulcahy says that people are often surprised that such a sophisticated design would be used for such a simple product, a cook stove for developing countries. Mulcahy answers, "Why should we provide developing nations with stoves that look like cast off scrap? Style or elegance of design usually only involves added thought, not added cost."

Mulcahy considers it a matter of respect not only to offer a clean, efficient stove to the world's poor, but to make sure that the stove is adapted to people's needs and not the other way around. WorldStove pilot projects in several African countries, Indonesia, and the Philippines have encountered all manner of local conditions that have required changes in the stove setup or manufacturing techniques.

The adaptability of the Lucia stove faced its greatest test in Haiti this winter where Mulcahy carried out a WorldStove Pilot Program in the short space of two months. He not only redesigned the stove to be produced with available tools and materials, but he completed a camp survey. The fact that since the quake more children have been forced to take responsibility for cooking made safety a top priority, so Mulcahy developed a Haitian specific pot stand with heat-shield and windscreen to accommodate the wide variety of pots used in Haiti and protect children from burns.

Left: The blue flame indicates that the Haiti Lucia stove is burning cleanly and efficiently. Right: Children have taken on more cooking responsibilities since the earthquake. Photo Credit: World Stove

Local versions of the Lucia stove must be tuned to work with available fuels. Peanut shells need different conditions than rice hulls, for instance. Mulcahy found that Haiti has many waste products that can be made into fuel pellets or used directly, including sugar cane waste, rice hulls, coffee hulls, bamboo, sawdust, coconut shells, mango pits, palm fronds and waste paper.

One of the best moments of Mulcahy's two months in Haiti was the day he first tuned a locally-built stove to run on the available pellets. That night he was able to cook a plateful of rice, beans and meat sauce for 21 people with only three handfuls of pellets.

Another prize moment occurred when Mulcahy showed up late to a village artisan's shop only to find the artisan already engaging a crowd of people demonstrating the stove and explaining how the biochar would help restore their soils. The metal workers began to add decorations of trees and birds to the stoves, telling Mulcahy that the pictures represent what will happen if people use the stoves to make biochar - the trees and birds will come back to Haiti.

Nathaniel Mulcahy showing designs that metal workers added to the stove wind screens. The metal workers say that trees and birds will return to Haiti when the soil is rebuilt with biochar. Photo Credit: World Stove

Almost a third of Haiti's land has lost so much topsoil that it is not possible to grow food crops. As a result, Haiti can no longer feed itself and people have fled to the cities where they were more vulnerable during the earthquake. Biochar can be a critical factor not only in restoring topsoil to Haiti but in revitalizing the rural economy and repopulating the countryside.

In the next phase of the Haiti project, WorldStove will work with United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Haitian Government to build stove-manufacturing hubs and create thousands of jobs making pellets and distributing biochar in the rural areas. Preliminary agreements are in place with 48 agricultural cooperatives that will provide crop waste for pellet production. The farmers will receive a proportionate amount of biochar in return to build their soils and increase production.

Mulcahy invites anyone who is interested in learning more about next steps in Haiti to visit the WorldStove website, For updates, you can sign up for the World Stove Twitter feed @WorldStove.

Kelpie Wilson is the communications editor for the International Biochar Initiative, working to promote sustainable biochar as a powerfully simple tool to fight global warming and boost food security.

Apr 29, 2010

The Biggest Failure in Energy is Thinking Bigger Is Better: Biochar Entrepreneur Jason Aramburu : TreeHugger

jason aramburu photoThis is a guest post from founder and CEO of re:char Jason Aramburu.
TREEHUGGER: What are the major advances have you seen (in your field) during the past 40 years? What, if any, were the major failures?
JASON ARAMBURU: I think one of the greatest advancements we've seen in renewable energy recently is cost reduction. Companies like GE continue to improve the capital cost of renewables such that they may soon compete with fossil fuels on a cost/kW basis. Achieving cost parity with fossil fuels is the only way to sustainably displace them. The biofuels boom and bust has taught the industry (and the public) that subsidies are simply not an effective long-term strategy.

I think the greatest failure in the energy field has been the notion that 'bigger is better.' The United States built its national grid to distribute power generated by large, centralized fossil fuel and nuclear plants. This design was predicated on the assumption of infinite, cheap sources of fossil fuel.

In reality, a centralized model is both inefficient and incapable of responding to changes in demand or fuel prices. Brilliant thinkers like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute have long supported a more distributed system, based around a diverse portfolio of energy technologies. The advantages of a distributed model include reduced logistical costs, improved efficiency and the ability to produce power where and when it is actually needed. Unfortunately, we have come to this realization too late. Our national grid (and our local utilities) are not set up to handle distributed, intermittent generation. Now, we must spend billions to upgrade the grid.

TH: What does a bright green future look like to you? What's the utopian vison?
JA: I envision a bright green future of true self-sufficiency, where ideas from the past blend with the realities of the present. We've become very specialized and almost totally incapable of providing for ourselves. We buy our power from the grid, our food from the supermarket and have no connection whatsoever to the production or disposal of anything. If one element of this support system fails, chaos ensues.

If we hope to survive in a greenhouse and energy constrained world, we must learn to be self-sufficient. We need to form a healthy and sustainable relationship with our natural resources, while limiting waste. We can learn a lot from Amazonian tribal societies. These tribes, while primitive, have existed for thousands of years without depleting their resources.

TH: How would we realistically transition into that sort of ideal situation?

JA: We first need to realize that the main hurdle to true self-sufficiency is laziness. If we can overcome this inertia, there are three areas where we can make massive strides with existing technologies:

Food - Every American Household is fully capable of producing basic foodstuffs like eggs and vegetables. If we could provide homeowners with the tools to produce some of their own food, we would realize dramatic improvements in health and nutrition, while saving money and reducing environmental impact.

Energy - All new constructions should be required to produce at least half of their energy on-site. A myriad of mature technologies exist to produce energy locally (solar, wind, biomass etc). Local production and consumption of energy would eliminate the need for a smart grid, and would encourage efficiency and conservation.

Waste - Landfills are a strange concept--they allow consumers to discretely and shamelessly waste. At the very least, all municipalities should institute mandatory household composting and recycling. It would be interesting to require households to dispose of the remaining solid waste in transparent trashcans. The fear of public shaming can do wonders to change human behavior.

photo courtesy Jason Aramburu

Apr 28, 2010

Long Live the Delta Queen, featuring Lon Eldridge's Delta Queen Rag

April 27, 2010 — Delta Queen footage from the Ohio River, featuring the great new piece of ragtime music of Lon Eldridge of Chattanooga, TN, the DELTA QUEEN RAG.

Bobby Kennedy shares his hopes for renewables | Grist

Watch this Earth Day greeting from Bobby Kennedy in a land-rowboat at his Waterkeeper Alliance HQ. After bailing his boat, RFK Jr. shares what he’s hopeful for. One word. Renewables. Kennedy spoke with Grist’s Jennifer Prediger to share his thoughts.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill could be set on fire | World news |

Deepwater HorizonRobot submarines fail to seal oil leak, which could become one of the worst in US history Associated Press, Wednesday 28 April 2010 11.57 BST A worker looks over an oil boom as oil is collected from the Deepwater Horizon's leaking pipeline off the Louisiana coast. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP The US coastguard is considering setting fire to oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico to prevent the slick from reaching shore after an explosion on a drilling rig last week. Robot submarines have so far failed to shut off the flow more than 1,500 metres below where the Deepwater Horizon was wrecked. Eleven workers are missing, presumed dead, and the cause of the explosion 50 miles off the Louisiana coast has not been determined. Coastguard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said that if the decision was made to go ahead the oil would be trapped in special containment booms and set on fire. The burn could be started today. "If we don't secure this well, this could be one of the most significant oil spills in US history," Landry said. A similar burn off the coast of Newfoundland in 1993 eliminated at least half the captured oil. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said birds and mammals were more likely to escape a burning area of the ocean than an oil slick. Birds might be disoriented by smoke plumes, but would be at much greater risk from oil in the water. On the downside, burning the oil creates air pollution and some experts say the effect on marine life is unclear. Ed Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University who is studying the oil spill, questioned whether burning would be successful. "It can be effective in calm water, not much wind, in a protected area," he said. "When you're out in the middle of the ocean, with wave actions, and currents, pushing you around, it's not easy." Last night the oil was about 20 miles off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, the closest it has been to land, but it is not expected to reach the coast before Friday, if at all. Hotel owners, fishermen and restaurateurs are keeping anxious watch as the slick spreads towards delicate wetlands, oyster beds and pristine white beaches. In Washington, the Obama administration launched a full investigation, with authorities saying they would devote every available resource to the inquiry. The last major spill in the Gulf was in June 1979, when an offshore drilling rig in Mexican waters, the Ixtoc I, blew up, releasing 530million litres of oil. It took until March 1980 to cap the well, and the oil contaminated US waters and the Texas shore. "In the worst-case scenario, this could also last months," said Richard Haut, a senior research scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Centre. Thousands of birds such as egrets and brown pelicans are nesting on barrier islands close to the rig's wreckage. If they are affected, rescuers would need to reach their remote islands, wash them down and release them back into the wild. Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said cleaning up brown pelican chicks after a modest spill in Louisiana in 2005 was a major undertaking. "Just about any petroleum can cause problems for birds because they lose their waterproofing, and that's what keeps them dry and warm," he said. "It's a really difficult time, and we're close to the peak of migration." The spill also threatens billions of fish eggs and larvae. If the well cannot be closed, almost 100,000 barrels of oil could spill into the Gulf before crews can drill a relief well to alleviate the pressure. The Exxon Valdez, the worst oil spill in US history, leaked 50 million litres into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. BP said it would begin the drilling a relief well by tomorrow even if crews could shut off oil leaking from the underground pipe. A spokesman, Robert Wine, said the drilling would take up to three months. In Pensacola, Florida, the easternmost point likely to be affected, beachgoers and business owners kept watch. Sal Pinzone, general manager of the fishing pier, arrives at work at 5.30am every day to watch the sun rise over the famous white-sand beach. "We are all worried," he said. "If the spill does hit the beaches along the Gulf, it will shut down everything."

Apr 27, 2010

Big Oil Fought Off New Safety Rules Before Rig Explosion

Louisiana Oil Rig
As families mourn the 11 workers thrown overboard in the worst oil rig disaster in decades and as the resulting spill continues to spread through the Gulf of Mexico, new questions are being raised about the training of the drill operators and about the oil company's commitment to safety.

Deepwater Horizon, the giant technically-advanced rig which exploded on April 20 and sank two days later, is leaking an estimated 42,000 gallons per day through a pipe about 5,000 feet below the surface. The spill has spread across 1,800 square miles -- an area larger than Rhode Island -- according to satellite images, oozing its way toward the Louisiana coast and posing a threat to wildlife, including a sperm whale spotted in the oil sheen.

The massive $600 million rig, which holds the record for boring the deepest oil and gas well in the world -- at 35,050 feet - had passed three recent federal inspections, the most recent on April 1, since it moved to its current location in January. The cause of the explosion has not been determined.

Yet relatives of workers who are presumed dead claim that the oil behemoth BP and rig owner TransOcean violated "numerous statutes and regulations" issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard, according to a lawsuit filed by Natalie Roshto, whose husband Shane, a deck floor hand, was thrown overboard by the force of the explosion and whose body has not yet been located.

Both companies failed to provide a competent crew, failed to properly supervise its employees and failed to provide Rushto with a safe place to work, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The lawsuit also names oil-services giant Halliburton as a defendant, claiming that the company "prior to the explosion, was engaged in cementing operations of the well and well cap and, upon information and belief, improperly and negligently performed these duties, which was a cause of the explosion."

BP and TransOcean have also aggressively opposed new safety regulations proposed last year by a federal agency that oversees offshore drilling -- which were prompted by a study that found many accidents in the industry.

There were 41 deaths and 302 injuries out of 1,443 incidents from 2001 to 2007, according to the study conducted by the Minerals and Management Service of the Interior Department. In addition, the agency issued 150 reports over incidents of non-compliant production and drilling operations and determined there was "no discernible improvement by industry over the past 7 years."

As a result, the agency proposed taking a more proactive stance by requiring operators to have their safety program audited at least once every three years -- previously, the industry's self-managed safety program was voluntary for operators. The agency estimated that the proposed rule, which has yet to take effect, would cost operators about $4.59 million in startup costs and $8 million in annual recurring costs.

The industry has launched a coordinated campaign to attack those regulations, with over 100 letters objecting to the regulations -- in a September 14, 2009 letter to MMS, BP vice president for Gulf of Mexico production, Richard Morrison, wrote that "we are not supportive of the extensive, prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule," arguing that the voluntary programs "have been and continue to be very successful," along with a list of very specific objections to the wording of the proposed regulations.

The next day, the American Petroleum Institute and the Offshore Operators Committee, in a joint letter to MMS, emphasized their preference for voluntary programs with "enough flexibility to suit the corporate culture of each company." Both trade groups also claimed that the industry's safety and environmental record has improved, citing MMS data to show that the number of lost workdays fell "from a 3.39 rate in 1996 to 0.64 in 2008, a reduction of over 80%."

The Offshore Operators Committee also submitted to MMS a September 2, 2009 PowerPoint presentation asking in bold letters, "What Do HURRICANES and New Rules Have in Common?" against a backdrop of hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico. On the next page, the answer appears: "Both are disruptive to Operations And are costly to Recover From".

The presentation also included the following statements:

"We are disappointed...
• MMS fails to understand that as operators, we can place expectations on contractors, but we cannot do the planning for them
• MMS adds a lot of prescriptive record keeping and documentation that does
nothing to keep people safe"

In addition, TransOcean accountant George Frazer, without identifying his affiliation with the company, submitted a public comment on the proposed regulations stating, "I strongly disagree that a mandated program as proposed is needed," arguing that the proposed action "is a major paperwork-intensive, rulemaking that will significantly impact our business, both operationally and financially," calling it an "unnecessary burden."

"It does appear to be have been an orchestrated effort among most of major oil companies and drilling operators," says Defenders of Wildlife senior policy adviser Richard Charter.

"This event has called attention to fact that there is a long-standing safety problem in offshore industry," he says, noting that he gets phone calls from whistleblowers working on rigs who complain about the work conditions and the environmental damage caused by such operations."

Brian Beckom, a personal-injury attorney who has sued TransOcean several times on behalf of workers, says that "the industry preaches safety, that's what comes out of their corporate mouths, but I know for a fact that is not always the way things go," though he concedes that the company is better than most in the industry, especially some of the smaller "fly-by-night operators". With newer expensive rigs -- BP was paying $500,000 a day to use Deepwater Horizon -- Beckom says "there is tremendous pressure to put production first" and safety issues fall by the wayside.

Industry officials seem to be aware of safety concerns -- in the minutes of a July 2009 meeting of the Health Safety Environment Committee of the International Association of Drilling Contractors trade group, one section is titled, "Stuck on the Plateau." At the meeting, members discussed the difficulty of lowering the number of safety incidents, how to "rock over from the incident plateau" especially in light of a shrinking workforce.

In the current case, the spill's damage has been exacerbated by the depth of the drilling, causing the oil to spread across a wider area and impeding clean-up efforts. On Monday morning, response teams failed to seal off the wellhead with a remote vehicle about a mile under the surface of the water -- an effort akin to "putting a lid on a peanut jar from thousands of feet away," explains Charter.

That threatens to make the spill the most damaging since the Exxon Valdez accident off the coast of Alaska in 1989. It is already the worst oil rig disaster since a blowout on the Union Oil platform off the coast of California in 1969 -- the public outrage over that 11-day oil spill helped spawn the modern environmental movement.

Additional at:

Lock and Dam Funding Plan Is on Its Way to Congress - Prairie Farmer

Industry consensus supports a fuel tax increase, instead of a lockage fee.
Published: Apr 27, 2010

The Inland Waterways Users Board unanimously adopted the final report that accompanies a new comprehensive, consensus-based package of recommendations formulated by an industry and Corps of Engineers working group to improve the continued vitality of the U.S. inland navigation system over the next 20 years.

The report and recommendations are being sent to Congress and the Obama Administration and if adopted, will better address the needs of the entire inland waterways navigation system and provide more dollars for greatly needed infrastructure improvements.

This proposal is supported by 150 industry stakeholders, including NCGA, as a way to fund the navigation system and would be in lieu of the imposition of a lockage fee that has been unsuccessfully offered in the last two fiscal year budgets and is strongly opposed by Waterways Council. Instead of a lockage fee, the proposal will increase the fuel tax on barge operators to fund lock and dam construction.

These recommendations were developed over a year-long period by the Inland Marine Transportation System Investment Strategy Team, composed of key Corps of Engineers personnel and members of the Users Board. Many in Congress have been very supportive of the process to create this set of recommendations.

The proposed recommendations and report prioritize navigation projects across the entire system, improve the Corps of Engineers' project management and processes to deliver projects on time and on budget, and recommend a funding mechanism that is affordable and meets the system's needs.

For in-depth coverage of the proposal, check out the May issue of Prairie Farmer.

Tracy L. Barnett: Albert Bates on the Great Change

Recently I was privileged to spend some time in Belize with Albert Bates, co-founder of The Farm in Tennessee, the Global Ecovillage Network, a prolific author and a visionary for our times. I can honestly say that few people have inspired me as he has of the urgent necessity to return to the basics of caring for ourselves and our Mother Earth.

I wrote about the workshop in "Life lessons on Maya Mountain" and "From one jungle to another: A modern-day pioneer."

I was also able to do a brief three-part interview with Albert, which I've just edited and uploaded to YouTube. In Part I, he discusses what he calls The Great Change -- the inevitable shift to a society less dependent on petroleum and other resources that are approaching their natural limits.

"Can we have a transition that's graceful and fun, and can we create a society that comes after that's better than the one that was before?" Bates asks. "That's a matter of some debate -- some people believe that won't be the case, but I believe that it is possible." His book The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook discusses this theme in depth and gives practical solutions, which he discusses in this interview.

Since The Esperanza Project, my new media initiative, is focused on the sustainability movement in Latin America, in Part II, I asked him to discuss the lessons he's learned in his travels in the south. Some of his answers are surprising.

In Part III, Bates discusses his new book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, he discusses the potential of a biological technology called biochar as a source of clean energy, a rich soil supplement and a powerful carbon sequestration device.

Hines Farm Blog previously posted Part II & Part III video interviews. Monte

Can Biochar Help Save the World?

I think it can, if we could only educate the masses and implement in a decentralized local community manor!
It requires a cultural change in thinking to waste nothing and to live in harmony with environment.
BioWaste to BioChar (Carbon Sponge) to Vibrant Living Soil! (
CharcoalOn Earth Day, we looked back on a year in which James Cameron's Avatar, a film about environmental crisis and restoration, swept box offices around the globe. What if there were a real-life answer to help solve the real world problems of climate change, peak oil, and global food security? Would you want the leaders of the G8 and the G20 to know about it and endorse it? This Earth Day, The Huntsville Project launched to inform the global public about biochar, one of the most promising developments in our fight against climate change. At the new website,, you can find out about biochar and sign the petition.
The Huntsville Project is asking global leaders to support this important new clean technology.
On June 25. the G8 will meet in Huntsville Ontario. Then the G20 will meet in Toronto on June 26 and 27.
Sign the Huntsville Petition and help put biochar on the global agenda!
Biochar Explained
Biochar is the modern version of an ancient Pre-Columbian technology invented by native Amazonian peoples to enhance soil fertility. A form of charcoal, it is created by pyrolysis - the burning of biomass, such as agricultural waste or wood, in low oxygen. The ancient source of biochar is called terra preta (prepared earth) in Brazil.
The first thing to know about biochar is that it is a way of removing CO2 greenhouse gas from the atmosphere for a very long time. The carbon from biomass, when pyrolyzed, can remain in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years. We know this because some of the terra preta soils of the Amazon are 2000 years old. And these ancient soils are still so fertile after all this time that there is an industry in Brazil to collect these soils and put them in bags to sell as potting soil.
Biochar is one of the few technologies that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. 'Green' technologies like solar and wind power reduce the amount of CO2 that goes in to the atmosphere, but do nothing to remove the carbon build up. Biochar takes carbon that has been captured from the atmosphere during the growing process of plants and trees and converts it into a soil additive, thereby storing the carbon in the earth. It has a number of advantages over other carbon removal technologies, such as geoengineering or coal power generation carbon capture and storage, in that it is proven, relatively cheap and can be widely applied. Biochar could potentially play a significant role combating climate change.
In addition, biochar has a number of other potential benefits.
Soil fertility
Field tests by Biochar Fund in Cameroon ( have demonstrated up to 220% yield increase in maize crops in degraded soil in one season with addition of biochar to the soil. Although it works in many different soil conditions, and possibly all, biochar works especially well in degraded soils, and in the tropics. Following the promising results in Cameroon, Biochar Fund recently received a $300,000 grant from Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement for biochar projects in Kenya.
Farms and gardens
Biochar has an exceptional ability to hold nitrogen and water in the soil. This means that farmers can use less water and less fertilizer. They can make biochar from their own wastes and use it in their fields, avoiding the carbon emissions associated with the manufacture and transport of fertilizer. Different biochar technologies are being developed that are optimized for different agricultural inputs, like rice husks, coconut shells, etc.
Pollution prevention Biochar lessens the run-off of nitrogen into waterways, which can cause serious health problems. These include 'blue baby' deaths from high nitrate contamination of ground water. Biochar could also prevent the growth of 'dead zones' where nitrogen-induced algae blooms in the ocean. Biochar may also be able to remediate other soil contaminants.
Invasive species control - A potential remedy for invasive species is to turn them into the raw material for biochar. Kudzu vine in the southern US, cat tails and striga in Africa, and water hyacinth in Africa and India are among the invasive species that could be treated in this way.
Reforestation - Biochar could be used to improve soils for reforestation programs. It could prove particularly valuable in places such as Haiti where severe deforestation leads to contaminated waters supplies and other problems.
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1.6 million people, mostly women and young children, die every year from smoke inhalation from traditional cooking stoves. Stoves which use the biochar process are emission-free while creating a soil additive to improve the fertility of kitchen gardens. Some biochar stoves can even create electricity for home lighting or cellphone charging.
Biochar-making equipment is available in many different types and sizes, from the small and very cheap ($6-8 dollars), all the way to municipal-scale plants. Equipment can in some cases be made with scrap metals.

This is why people in the Biochar Offsets group are so passionate about this emerging technology and why we started the Huntsville Project and Biochar Haiti. Biochar can play a key role in the sanitation, health, and food security needs of people in developing countries, and globally, while at the same time contributing to the mitigation of climate change. We want to help bring a new biochar industry to Haiti to help restore the forests and make the soil fruitful for the people of Haiti, while creating jobs and income. We can take this model and apply it in any developing country.
You can find out more at the website of the International Biochar Initiative:

Apr 26, 2010

A New Price for LED Bulbs: Free - Greentech Media

Giving out energy-efficient lights beats building coal plants.

LED bulbs cost far more than conventional light bulbs, but they could become the cheapest light on the planet if the circumstances work out.

Rather than build new gas or even solar plants, utilities or third party service organizations could take care of a significant chunk of power demand by giving away LED bulbs to consumers.

"For a utility to give away those light bulbs winds up being an effective cost to them, using full financing, of less than 2.5 cents a kilowatt hour or less expensive than any claims that anybody makes for generating power -- even with coal with fully depreciated power plants and no externality tax," said Alan Salzman, co-founder of VantagePoint Venture Partners.

Here is our rough extrapolation of how the math might work. Good 60-watt equivalent LED bulbs now typically cost more than $40 dollars, but a variety of large companies such as Philips, Osram and Toshiba and startups like Bridgelux (VantagePoint invested in Bridgelux) and Lemnis Lighting want to bring it down to $20 to $25 in the next one to two years -- and as low as $10 after that. The declining price of LEDs will be topic number one at Lightfair, which is taking place next month in Las Vegas.

A 60-watt equivalent LED bulb might consume 7 to 12 watts. For the sake of argument, assume the average will be 10 watts. If that light socket is occupied by an incandescent bulb, that's a savings of 50 watts per socket.

At $20 a bulb, a utility could buy 10 million LED bulbs for $200 million, not even factoring in a volume discount. In turn, that would result in 500 megawatts worth of capacity being taken off line. For $400 million, a utility could shave a gigawatt from its needs, or about the same amount of power produced by a multibillion dollar nuclear or coal plant that would cost billions and take years to construct.
Lighting "is a $100 billion industry that is going to flip because it makes economic sense," Salzman added.

"If you had a product that costs $40 to $50 it could possibly be enough" depending on the energy savings and structure of the agreement, added Warner Philips, the CEO of LED bulb maker Lemnis Lighting, in a separate interview. (His great grandfather started Philips Lighting way back when, and rode the rails in Russia and Europe to sell the concept.)

There is no shortage of sockets out there, either. There are 52 light sockets in the average U.S. home and 40 in the average European residence, according to statistics from Philips Lighting. With 100 million residences in the U.S., that makes 5.2 billion light sockets -- and a good percentage still have incandescents in them. We're extrapolating here, but you get the idea.

The lighting industry, of course, would have to navigate a number of hurdles first. One, the price of LEDs would have to come down and production volumes would have to increase. Manufacturers have made fairly substantial strides in these areas, but LEDs remain a fraction of the market in commercial and residential lighting. Last week, Philips said it would come out with a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb this year, but they didn't offer a price. GE has a 40-watt equivalent coming in late 2010/early 2011 that will cost $40 to $50.

Two, consumers and utilities would have to be convinced of the color, reliability and quality of the lights. Many early LED bulbs gave off an eerie "alien autopsy" sort of light. Some consumers also worry that LEDs will not live up to the claims that they can last 35,000 to 50,000 hours. CFLs are supposed to last 15,000 hours but often burn out early. (Conventional incandescent bulbs only last 1000 hours.) Any product would have to undergo a battery of tests and public hearings.

Three, utilities would have to figure out a way to make sure consumers don't sell their new fancy bulbs on eBay. It might only work in areas where smart meters already exist. Unfortunately, some members of the public are already up in arms about smart grid, alleging that the new meters have overcharged them and have created the conditions for a security and privacy disaster. Telling consumers that they will get penalized if they change their light bulbs might be too much of a public relations challenge for many utilities to take on.

Four, utilities could just give away more CFLs, which only consume 15 watts.

On the other hand, many of these problems could be ameliorated by having the bulbs go to consumers through third party service providers under energy efficiency contracts, said Philips. These companies would go into a home, retrofit it, and charge as a fee a percentage of the power saved over the coming years. If consumers complained that they weren't saving as much power as they had hoped, a quick audit would determine if they removed their fancy bulbs or not. With accurate data bout retrofits, the power savings could also be bundled for carbon credits in certain jurisidictions.

"They (third party providers) will be taking on part of the role of the utility," said Philips.

Interestingly, Matt Golden, co-founder of software developer/retrofitter Recurve, recently told us about his idea for selling retrofits as a service for shifting peak power, a similar concept.

Commercial building owners might jump at the chance to get free LEDs. Tube fluorescent lights are the standard in U.S. commercial buildings, so the savings from power would be decreased in this scenario. Nonetheless, building owners and real estate investment trusts would likely see their maintenance bills associated with lighting plummet. In some early LED experiments, half of the savings came from lower maintenance costs.

Think of it. A REIT would get free bulbs, lower maintenance bills, and be able to tell prospective tenants that their electricity bills will be lower, which in turn would allow the REIT to charge a slightly higher rent.

Approximately 25 percent of the energy consumed in commercial buildings goes toward lighting, according to the Department of Energy's Buildings Energy Data Book.

But will utilities go for this? "I believe so," Salzman said. "We've been talking with a number of them. A lot of the existing capacity reaches end of life over the next twenty years... It is cheaper to give away light bulbs than it is to generate any other source."

Eric Wesoff contributed to this article.